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Ahead of tricentennial, Maafa celebration honors ancestors

28th June 2017   ·   0 Comments

Ashé co-founder Carol Bebelle and Luther Gray discuss the 17 annual Maafa with NNPA/DTU Journalism Fellow Tiana Hunt. (Photo by Darrell Larome Williams, NNPA/DTU Journalism Fellow)

Ashé co-founder Carol Bebelle and Luther Gray discuss the 17 annual Maafa with NNPA/DTU Journalism Fellow Tiana Hunt. (Photo: Darrell Larome Williams, NNPA/DTU Journalism Fellow)

By Tiana Hunt
(NNPA/DTU Journalism Fellow)

New Orleans, LA – As the Crescent City nears its 300-year anniversary in 2018, one arts institution is preparing to honor not just the city’s past, but all the Africans who died during its early life.

Ashé Cultural Arts Center, a nearly 20-year-old arts-based institution located in New Orleans’ Central City area, is kicking off its celebration of the tricentennial with this year’s Maafa commemoration, “A Prelude to the Tri-centennial,” at Congo Square in Armstrong Park on July 1.

Maafa, a Kiswahili word meaning “great tragedy” or “horrific tragedy,” and a reference to the Middle Passage or Transatlantic Slave Trade, will pay tribute to the scores of African captives who were enslaved and brought to the Americas to be used as a labor force. African slaves arrived in Americas in 1719.

“The local Maafa Commemoration offers an opportunity for the whole community to pause and reflect on this great transgression against humanity,” said Carol Bebelle, co-founder of Ashé Cultural Arts Center.

During the celebration, participants all garbed in white attire will honor their African ancestors who died during the Middle Passage. The ceremony will include “multi-denominational words of healing;” the singing of ancestral songs; a tribute to the indigenous people of Louisiana; and the eventual releasing of doves.

“It allows us to personally, and as a community, agree to distance ourselves institutionally, in word and deed, from that transgression, its legacy and the evolved practice of racism in our civic, social, spiritual and personal lives,” Bebelle said.

This year’s Maafa will also honor New Orleans civil rights hero, Jerome Smith, an activist who is renowned for his role as a Freedom Rider during 1964’s Freedom Summer.

The Maafa ceremony will start with libations to the ancestors, songs and dancing at Congo Square, where Africans would gather on Sunday mornings to drum, dance, worship their ancestors and to communicate with each other. Prayers from a diversity of faiths, including those of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, indigenous African religions and others, will be offered during the ceremony.

But the celebrating doesn’t end there, says Luther Gray, coordinator of cultural and communication programming at Ashé.

“At 9 a.m., the Maafa will leave the Congo Square. We will walk through the French Quarters, passing up Saint Augustine church and the Tomb of the Unknown Slave. We will stop, briefly, to remember our ancestors. Lastly, we will go to the Mississippi River,” Gray said.

After leaving Congo Square, the procession, led by drummers, musicians, Black Indians and African dancers, will march through Tremé, briefly stopping at St. Augustine Catholic Church at the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Slave.  The procession will then continue on through the French Quarter, with stops at Café Maspero, the Royal Orleans Hotel and the St. Louis Exchange Hotel where slave auctions were regularly held and slave masters transacted business.  The procession will then continue to its final stop at the Mississippi River. While there, amid drumming, dancing, singing and praying, flowers will be released and “ancestors will be honored by name, including deceased family members, and individuals who were victims of acts of senseless violence.” 

Following the ceremony on the river, shuttles will be on site to transport participants back to Congo Square.

Now in its seventeenth year, Maafa festivities will coincide with the famed Essence Festival, which also takes place in New Orleans that weekend. Ashé is inviting Essence Fest goers and other visitors from around the world to join in the ceremony.

Ashé Cultural Arts Center was founded by Bebelle and Doug Redd in 1998. It was a response to African American artist and cultural barriers in New Orleans.

Ashe Cultural Arts Center focuses on the understanding of every central thing about the human existence, that is the fact that culture is the core element of everybody. 17 years ago some young people decided to come together and work with people in other port cities to start a remembrance ceremony for places that enslaved Africans that were brought to the United States of America that is how the MAAFA was started. The MAAFA is an opportunity for Black people to be thankful to our ancestors that lived through a hard time that is unimaginable and it gives the Blacks an opportunity to acknowledge the true wrong that was done. June 29 through July 1 Blacks all over the world will be celebrating MAAFA.

In addition to the July 1 ceremony, Ashé has a full lineup of pre-Maafa events beginning with visits to the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La. and the River Road African-American Museum in Donaldsonville, La. on June 27.

The Maafa will take place from June 29 to July 1. All the events are free and open to the public. For more information, call 504-569-9070 or visit

Related pre-Maafa activities are listed below:

June 27 at 8 a.m.
Day trip to Whitney Plantation in Wallace, LA and The River Road African-American Museum in Donaldsonville, LA.
Departing from Ashé Cultural Arts Center (1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.)

June 29, 6-9 p.m.
Community Dance & Drum Workshop with Danys “LaMora Perez Prades & Oyu Oro Experimental Dance Ensemble from Santiago de Cuba
Featuring Bill Summers and Alexey Marti
Location: Ashé Cultural Arts Center (1724 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.)

June 30, 5-7 p.m.
Inaugural Maafa Side by Side Exhibition, curated by Gason Ayisyin
Location: Ashé Cultural Arts Center (1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.)

June 30, 7-9 p.m.
Maafa Concert featuring Dee-1, Tonya Boyd-Cannon, LaMora, Oyu Oro, Bill Summers, Alexey Marti, and the Arrowhead Jazz Band
Location: Ashé Power House (1731 Baronne St.)

Tiana Hunt is a 2017 NNPA “Discover The Unexpected” Journalism Fellow and a recent graduate of Clark Atlanta University. This summer, Tiana is writing for The Louisiana Weekly, a member newspaper of the NNPA. Follow Tiana on Twitter @TianaTaughtYa.

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